Jennifer Abel: Canada’s Olympic Future

In a story that first appeared in Reader’s Digest Canada in 2012, Jennifer Abel prepares for the three-metre synchronized springboard event at the London Olympics—a performance that won her and her partner Émilie Heymans bronze medals.

Jennifer AbelPhoto: Graham Hughes/Canadian Press

Training for the Olympics with Jennifer Abel

Two seconds. That’s all it takes from the moment Jennifer Abel’s toes leave the springboard until her fingertips hit the water. Two seconds to launch, rise, twist, flip, straighten out and plunge. It’s a lot to think about. So she doesn’t.

“The less thinking I do, the better,” says the 20-year-old diver from Laval, Quebec. “If I start thinking, the dive is already over.” (Check out 10 Celebrities Reveal the Great Canadians Who Inspired Them.)

Practice is a different story. Six days a week, Abel’s mind is constantly working as she endures a gruelling training routine at the Olympic Pool in Montreal, in the shadows of all the medal hopefuls who came before her. She alternates from dryland practice to the pool to the weight room and back again, with advisors constantly monitoring and critiquing her technique, balance and form. Lately, her coaches Arturo Miranda and César Henderson have been helping her perfect what’s known as “the hurdle” – the one-legged bounce that precedes takeoff. Abel has a habit of raising one arm higher than the other, which can throw her dive off-kilter, sending her into the air on a tilted axis. It’s a fix that could mean the difference between a medal and heading home empty-handed.

Abel began diving at age five, after seeing her brother Andy, then nine, launch himself off a board. Eleven years later, she stood on the three-metre springboard at the Beijing National Aquatics Centre, part of the Canadian contingent at the 2008 Olympics. She was just 16 and not quite ready to challenge for a podium finish (she placed 13th, one spot out of the finals), but found the experience edifying.

“It was very important for me to see the other athletes, not only in diving but in other sports, and to see how hard they trained to reach their goals,” she says. “I knew that I had four years to work hard to become better.”

In London, Abel is competing in the individual three-metre springboard, but it’s her second event, the three-metre synchronized springboard, that everyone will be watching. She and her partner, three-time Olympic medallist Émilie Heymans, are sitting in second going into the Games. Since joining forces in 2010, the two women have racked up hardware—silver at the 2011 FINA World Series and the 2011 Pan Am Games and gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games—and established a sister-like relationship.

“We have a great connection, even though she’s 10 years older than me,” says Abel. “Sometimes we look at each other and start laughing because we know something’s right or wrong.” It could be the pacing of their approach, the speed of their rotation or something far more trivial – like when a teammate has made off with their pet piece of equipment.

“There are eight springboards, but there are two that we are used to using. And if someone else takes them, we won’t be happy,” she mock threatens.

Their bond is priceless in a sport that demands mirror-image synchronicity. To help with the technical side of their partnership, Abel and Heymans rely on slow-motion video set up poolside. It allows the duo to watch their dive just 30 seconds after they’ve executed it.

The hours spent reviewing tape—analyzing, refining, tweaking—have all been in service of achieving the perfect dive. Abel is hopeful that she’ll find herself on the podium this time around, but she maintains perspective with a maturity that speaks more to her experience than her age – she’s an Olympic veteran, after all.

“If I have a medal, I’ll be really happy. If I don’t, but I have a great score, I’ll be happy too.”

Here’s how Canada has changed since it started hosting the Olympics 40 years ago.

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Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada